Using Tropical Plants in your Garden

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

by Ken Muellers

Some would say tropical plants have no place in a Northeast garden. They don’t belong. The plants look foreign and out of place. The leaves are too big and the colors too shocking. I would argue that is the whole point! When used correctly, these bold, exotic plants can transport us to other places and create interest in the garden contrasting the more permanent plantings that tend to blend with their surroundings.

Tropical plants are a broadly defined group with one unifying characteristic – they come from tropical regions of the planet. Because of that origin, they thrive in a warm to hot climate, and conversely, cannot handle cold temperatures. In fact, freezing temperatures pretty much equal death for this group of plants. Fortunately for us, most of our area is frost free from mid-May until late September, allowing time for these tropical beauties to liven up the landscape.

No plant transports us to a tropical island better than a palm tree. Many local nurseries stock varieties of palms that can be planted in a bed or a pot for the summer to create a lush Caribbean feel. In a small space, a Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) can provide that palm “look” even though it is not actually in the palm family.

Cordyline is the perfect way to add lush, tropical color to your garden.

If big, bold leaves are what you are looking for, elephant ear (Alocasia and Colicasia) are tough to beat. These plants can be bought container grown or if you plan ahead, you can start them as bulbs early in the season. Coming in a variety of colors, these dramatic plants need plenty of moisture. Another great group of plants for huge leaves is the banana family (Musa). With leaves several feet long, these upright plants standout in any garden.

Bananas or elephant ears too big for your space? Consider dracaena ‘limelight’ with its chartreuse leaves, or variegated shell ginger (Alpinia) that can liven up a dark spot. Looking for more color? Try croton (Codiaeum) with its multi-colored glossy leaves or one of the many varieties of cordyline for their spiky, sword-like foliage. If you have shade in your garden, caladium and coleus are two types of plants that can give you exotic colored leaves and tolerate low light.

Dramatic and vibrant bloom of hibiscus.

If you are looking to get flowers along with your bold leaves, canna lilies might be your answer. Many different varieties of canna are available offering pink, orange, yellow or red flowers. Varieties such as ‘pretoria’ and ‘tropicanna’ have colorful foliage to complement their flowers. If tropical flowers are your main goal, nothing says tropical flower better than hibiscus. (It’s the state flower of Hawaii after all.)

Whether you are using these tropicals in containers or in your plant beds, keep in mind all that lush growth requires plenty of food and water to fuel it, so fertilizing and regular watering are a must for good results. If you want to extend the life of your tropical plants, make sure to bring them inside before the first frost in the fall. Or you can take them on a tropical vacation with you. After a long summer, they’ve earned it.